Mediatribes-Making Sense of Popular Culture, the Mass Media, and Everyday Life in America

Article excerpt

ONE ADVANTAGE of keeping journals is that you have a record of your ideas as they have evolved over the years. Recently I was looking through a journal written in 1980 and noticed plans I had made for teaching a course in popular culture. It was to be called "Popular Culture in American Society."

Popular Culture in American Society: A Course Proposal

The course would deal with topics such as popular music (rock, country-western, disco, jazz ... and now one would add rap), comics (Superman, Batman, The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, Dick Tracy, etc.), advertising (commercials on radio and television, print ads in newspapers and magazines, billboards, etc.), television (sitcoms, crime shows, action-adventure programs, soap operas, sports shows, news), radio (talk shows, interviews, news shows, top-forty music shows, dramas), humor (jokes, folk humor, cartoons, records), artifacts (Levis blue jeans, McDonald's hamburgers, Coca-Cola, hair fashions, eyeglasses, supermarkets, etc.) and various other topics, all from a multi-disciplinary and comparative perspective.

I never taught the course, but my design offers an overview of what might be dealt with in a course on that subject--or an investigation of popular culture in America or elsewhere. What I was interested in (and still am) is all the junk that floods our airwaves, all the "significant" trivia that are part of our lives, all the rituals we observe so faithfully (seldom thinking about what we are doing) and all the institutions that are part of our everyday lives.

I've been teaching courses on popular culture and writing since the mid-Sixties. When I started working on popular culture it was considered a "trivial" matter, not worth bothering with, by many American academics. Now, popular culture has become a very fashionable subject, though most of the work on it is now called "cultural studies." I'll still be writing about popular culture next year and the year after, when the topic probably will have lost its appeal and there's a new "hot" subject in academia--usually some subject the French or Germans were interested in a few years ago and got bored with.

There's Method to My Madness

I have found in teaching that my students find it much more interesting when I provide them with methods of analysis which they can apply to popular culture than when I lecture and offer my ideas about popular culture, in general, or some aspect of it. I sneak in an idea from time to time, but focus my attention on talking about ways of analyzing popular culture and thus empowering my students to make their own analyses.

Besides, our students at San Francisco State find it very difficult to listen to lectures on anything except sex (the biology department's course on sex is the most popular course in the school, with 700 students every semester). Dealing with students who have an attention span of seven minutes, the time between commercials on television shows (forgive me if I exaggerate a bit) makes it necessary to engage the students in activities rather than just lecturing. With this is mind, let me suggest some approaches to popular culture (and American culture in general) that might be considered.

The UnCola Country

Ferdinand de Saussure, in his Course in General Linguistics wrote, "Concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system" (1966, 117). He added, "the most precise characteristics" of these concepts "is in being what the others are not" (1966, p.117). These lines have had enormous impact on western thought, for they explain how people, institutions, countries gain an identity. It's all in the differences.

With this in mind, we can understand how Americans have defined themselves. Just as Seven-Up is the "uncola," we Americans have defined ourselves as the "un-Europeans. …